Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50

Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50

Abstract Design in American Quilts, an exhibition presented in 1971 at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, far exceeded the reach and impact its creators initially anticipated. In short, it became a cultural phenomenon.

A last-minute addition to the Whitney’s summer schedule, Abstract Design in American Quilts attracted unexpectedly large and enthusiastic audiences, quickly selling out its catalog and garnering outsized praise from eminent critics.

“A stunning revelation.”
--Hilton Kramer, New York Times art critic, July 3, 1971 

Equally important, numerous versions of the exhibition traveled to museums and galleries across the U.S., Europe, and Japan throughout the 1970s. Artists, hobbyists, collectors, critics, and scholars saw the exhibition in places as far-flung as Atlanta and Amsterdam, Minneapolis, and Manchester. They saw textile folk art recognized for what it was: an important part of our collective artistic and cultural heritage. Inspired, many viewers began to incorporate quilts and quiltmaking into their lives, careers, and artistic practices. 

In Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50, surround yourself with the original Whitney quilts and learn how the exhibition created such an immediate impact.

The quilts in this exhibition are from the International Quilt Museum’s Permanent Collection.

 

About the Collectors

About the Collectors

Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof met in 1967. They quickly connected over their mutual interest in art and textiles and, in 1968, van der Hoof joined Holstein in New York City, where the couple began amassing a quilt collection.

van der Hoof was born in Berkeley, California in 1943. She attended the University of California-Santa Barbara, majoring in art and English. After a short stint in fashion merchandising, van der Hoof moved to Europe, traveling and exploring extensively while designing and constructing her own clothing. 

Holstein grew up in New York State and attended Harvard College as an English major. After graduation he pursued a law degree and worked as an editor for a trade magazine and as an art photographer in New York City.

Holstein and van der Hoof spent weekends in Pennsylvania searching for antiques. They found troves of American pieced quilts with visual parallels to modern art and began purchasing examples. The couple married in 1973, and in 1983 moved to Cazenovia, New York, and raised their two children while continuing to collect and exhibit quilts. 

About the Collectors

Abstract Design

Abstract Design
Abstract Design

In Abstract Design in American Quilts, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof selected quilts for their designed qualities, leading to comparisons to works by mid-century abstract expressionists. Holstein reflected on this parallel: 

“As we looked at scores and then hundreds and eventually thousands of pieced quilts we were amazed to see how . . . the powerful images we saw in many pieced quilts had preceded similar developments in modern abstract art, in some cases by a century or more.”

This radical approach shifted the perception of quilts in a number of ways: a much larger and broader audience was now aware of them; critics who had never before considered quilts hailed them as works of art; and artists who had experimented with the medium saw the quilt form taken seriously in America’s cultural capital. 

Other Perspectives

Other Perspectives
Other Perspectives

Abstract Design in American Quilt’s run at the Whitney Museum of Art was extended in 1971 due to the enthusiastic response it received. Critics hailed quilts as important artwork in the American canon. New York Times writer Hilton Kramer, wrote: 

"The most authentic visual articulation of the American imagination in the last century is to be found in the so-called 'minor' arts . . . .The anonymous quilt-makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage."

Some feminist writers, however, found the exhibit and the comparison of quilts to a male-dominated art form to be offensive. Art historian Patricia Mainardi wrote:

“Because our female ancestors’ pieced quilts bear a superficial resemblance to the work of contemporary formalist artists . . . modern male curators and critics are now capable of “seeing” the art in them.”

Mainardi pointed out that Holstein “. . . turned history upside down and backwards . . . ,” and supported a “gerrymander[ing of] the very definition of art around the accomplishments of all those who are not white and male. Fifty years later, this debate is largely unchanged, as quilt artists struggle to gain a legitimate and well-deserved place in the mainstream art world.

Photos from the Original Whitney Exhibition

Photos from the Original Whitney Exhibition
Photos from the Original Whitney Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Log Cabin, Light and Dark Setting
Maker unknown
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1870-1890
Cotton; hand pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0031

Stripes
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0035

Baby’s Blocks
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Massachusetts, 1880-1900
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0056

Circles and Crosses
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Colorado, 1890-1900
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
Gift of Philip Holstein, IQM 2019.134.0001

Sawtooth
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Massachusetts, 1890-1910
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0024

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1920-1940
Wool; hand and machine pieced, hand embroidered and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0027

Nine Patch
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Wool; machined pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0020

Kaleidoscope
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1900-1920
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0038

Tree Everlasting
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0003

Zig Zag
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Silk; hand pieced and embroidered, tied
IQM 2003.003.0016

Stripes (Cigar Ribbons)
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Maine or Vermont, 1890-1910
Silk; hand pieced and embroidered
IQM 2003.003.0005

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Pennsylvania, 1900-1920
Cotton; hand pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0049

Basket
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1870-1890
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0051

Log Cabin, Straight Furrows setting
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1890-1910
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0026

Eccentric Star
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1930-1940
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0039

Rocky Road to California
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1930-1940
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0033

Rainbow Stripes
Inscribed E. S. REITZ
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1890-1910
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0041

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1900-1920
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0043

Puffs
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Maine, 1900-1920
Wool; hand pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0007

Birds in Air
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1870-1890
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0040

Log Cabin, Courthouse Steps variation
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1870-1890
Wool; hand pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0057

Bars
Amish maker unidentified
Made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 1890-1910
Wool; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0013

Thousand Pyramids
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0009

Rob Peter to Pay Paul
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0017

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Maine, 1900-1920
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, hand embroidered, tied
IQM 2003.003.0046

Shoo Fly
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Vermont, 1880-1900
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0052

Log Cabin, Barn Raising setting
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Jersey, 1930-1950
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0042

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Pennsylvania or New England, 1900-1920
Wool; hand pieced, embroidered, and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0002

Around the World
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Hampshire, 1930-1950
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0050

String Squares
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1920-1940
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0001

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Vermont, 1910-1930
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0053

Four Patch
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania, 1930-1950
Rayon and silk; machine pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0011

Crazy quilt
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Vermont, 1890-1900
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0032

King’s Crown
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0018

Eastern Star
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1830-1850
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0047

Log Cabin, Courthouse Steps variation
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Wool; hand pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0028

Basket
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Jersey, 1900-1920
Cotton; machine pieced, hand appliquéd and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0037

Nine Patch
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1910-1930
Cotton; machined pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0055

Four Patch
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1890-1910
Cotton; hand pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0025

Bars
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1890-1910
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0058

Double Irish Chain
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1850-1870
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0015

Log Cabin, Light and Dark setting
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1900-1920
Wool; hand pieced, tied
IQM 2003.003.0036

Roman Stripe variation
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Vermont, 1930-1950
Cotton and rayon; machine pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0012

Double Irish Chain
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Maine, 1900-1920
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0029

Schoolhouse
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Hampshire
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0014

Log Cabin, Courthouse Steps variation
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Wool; hand pieced, unquilted
IQM 2003.003.0019

Log Cabin, Straight Furrow setting
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Jersey, 1870-1890
Wool; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0004

Triple Irish Chain
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Wool; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0023

Square in a Square
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Pennsylvania, 1930-1950
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0054

Wild Goose Chase
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1900-1920
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0034

Bars variation
Maker unidentified
Possibly made in Massachusetts, 1860-1880
Cotton; hand pieced, machine quilted
IQM 2003.003.0048

Wild Goose Chase
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1870-1890
Cotton; hand and machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0010

Streak of Lightning
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1890-1910
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0021

Baby’s Blocks
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1900-1920
Cotton; machine and hand pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0006

Roman Square
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Jersey, 1890-1910
Cotton, hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0044

Nine Patch
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Jersey, 1900-1920
Wool; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0030

Checkerboard
Maker unidentified
Probably made in New Jersey, 1880-1900
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0022

Wild Goose Chase variation
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Pennsylvania, 1880-1900
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
IQM 2003.003.0008

Ocean Waves
Maker unidentified
Probably made in Sandgate, Vermont, 1890-1910
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
IQM 2003.003.0045

Works in the Exhibition

Virtual Gallery Walkthrough

Virtual Gallery Walkthrough
Virtual Gallery Walkthrough
Support for this exhibition has been provided by contributions from visitors like you and by the following sponsors Robert & Ardis James Foundation, Lincoln Modern Quilt Guild, Anonymous, Nebraska Arts Council/Nebraska Cultural Endowment and Friends of the International Quilt Museum. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov for more information.
Event Date
Friday, March 26, 2021 to Saturday, September 4, 2021